Break for a Day of Opportunity: Rosh HaShanah 5775 Day 1 Sermon

Click this link to access a formatted PDF of my sermon for the first day of Rosh HaShanah 5775.

See below for the unformatted version of the 5775 Day 1 sermon.


Shanah tovah—a good new year!
I1 am delighted to be back at Congregation Sons of Israel in Amsterdam2 this year.3 I am blessed with an unusual opportunity as a rabbinical student: to work twice with the same community. Since two years ago, when I last served here as Student Rabbi, some people in our lives then have left our lives now. And since that time, we may have merited to welcome new people in our lives.
As for me: My own life has changed dramatically in at least two ways. First off, I got married. Many new friends and family members have entered my life. I went overnight from being an uncle to one nephew, to becoming the uncle of three nephews and three nieces—which is altogether six “niblings,” as I like to call them. (That is, by the way, a 500% increase.)
Second, the change that frightens me most is my becoming a senior rabbinical student. This is my fifth of five years at the Jewish Theological Seminary’s Rabbinical School. On top of that, since I studied Jewish Music as an undergraduate at JTS—the Jewish Theological Seminary—this is actually my ninth of nine years at the Seminary. This ninth year is the marker of a near-decade at JTS, and it is likely to be the end of an era for me. Just a few days before Shavu’ot, if all goes well, I will graduate from life as a student. I will soon enter the workforce. I will soon move from a primary occupation where I pay tuition, to a primary occupation where I’m paid a salary.
The rabbinate is tough work. But then again, so is being a medical professional, or a legal professional. Or a politician, or a camp director. Or an investor. Or a teacher. Or a repairperson. Or a caretaker. Or a parent. Or any kind of work—salary or not.
And this makes me nervous.
As a whole, we Americans work more hours a week, with fewer vacations, with later retirement than any other nation.4 Along these lines, President Barack Obama has noted that “the United States is the only developed country in the world without paid maternity leave.”5 Every country in Europe demands that employers provide paid annual leave. In contrast, our government does not require that employees get any paid annual leave whatsoever. Between 1990 and the beginning of this decade, wages have not shot up so tremendously. Meanwhile, the cost of living in the United States increased approximately 67%, and employment opportunities decreased despite a national increase in worker output.6 For those of us lucky enough—or unlucky enough—to be employed in America, we might take comfort knowing that the 9-5 work-day might still exist in some sense: that the national average of hours put in for a full-time job during the work-week has shot up now, but only to 8.5 hours. That being said, working Americans with full-time jobs are on average working now over 11 hours on the weekend.7 And, as for when the employee leaves the office, the workday is still not over. In 2011, over 1/5 of employed e-mail users reported to be “expected to respond to work e-mail when they’re not at work,” over 1/4 were said to check e-mail on vacation, and approximately 1/2 would check work-related e-mail on sick days.8
You and I might not be workaholics, but the United States is a workaholic.
We are lucky when we can take a break from our responsibilities. We cannot necessarily expect our employers to tell us when to take our breaks. As the internet becomes a more pervasive part of life in the USA and the developing world, and as people spend more time with cell phones, and business demands, and demands for instant gratification; we spend less time with each other.
Americans who work can’t be left alone. Nor can they be with the people they love the most.
I want to share with you a teaching from a rabbi who passed away this July: Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi. To say that he was eccentric might be an understatement. He led a very unusual life.
Born in Europe, Zalman Schachter and his family fled the Nazis, leading him to a safehaven in Belgian Antwerp, whereat he joined, and studied Torah among, Chasidic Jews. Not long after moving to the United States and becoming an ordained Chabad rabbi, Reb Zalman became disenchanted with the Orthodoxy around him. He called for an experiment in renewing Judaism: with more music, more meditation, more inclusivity, and more of the attributes that made the 60s such a radical and controversial time, including drug use and the spirit of free love—which, by the way, are not exactly “kosher” in the Jewish tradition. Reb Zalman’s love for meditation led him to explore other faith practices—so much so that, in 1975, he became a Sufi Sheikh (all while he was still a practicing rabbi and professor of world religions).
We might not be mystics, and we might find discomfort—and we might disapprove—when we consider Reb Zalman’s life. Yet, his obsession with world religions might be an exact parallel of the dream Jews have only begun to realize over the past two centuries: How can we be citizens of the world, and also be members of Am Yisra’el (עַם יִשְׂרָאֵל)—the people Israel? More forceful than an inquisitive dream, Reb Zalman liked to state this question in the form of a challenge: “If you’re such a universalist, why be Jewish?”
In a way, because Reb Zalman was a champion of so many cultures, he could possibly be among the best people to answer this question.
The short version of Reb Zalman’s answer—why be Jewish when the secular world is so grand—goes like this: Every people has special gifts to give the world, and the world needs those gifts. The Ancient Greeks gave us philosophy and math. The Buddhists and Sufis have given us different meditation practices. What do the Jews bring? We bring a few gifts.
First off, the Jews bring this idea that we have to be mindful of what we consume, and that what we consume must be attained through ethical means. We call that kashrut (כַּשְׁרוּת)—“keeping kosher.” Second, we Jews have this notion that wisdom should lead to action—that what we study, which we call Torah (תּוֹרָה), is not only to be read, but to be lived. And third, we Jews bring to the world an understanding that there are two kinds of time. The first kind of time is time as a social construct9: We decide when it is time to go to work, when it is time to check e-mail, when it is time to watch TV, etc. And then there is natural time10: time to say Modeh Ani (מוֹדֶה אֲנִי)—“I thank You, living, steadfast Sovereign, for having returned my soul to me”—and other morning blessings as the Sun rises up; time to say the bedtime Sh’ma (שְׁמַע) when night has fallen. Moreover, our sense of natural time checks in with our bodies and tells us that we need to rest. Human nature was designed for a weekly 25-hour break fromt the rest of the world, a special break we call Shabbat (שַׁבָּת). And our bodies don’t work exactly like clockwork. We need more rest than just one Shabbat a week. Because our bodies cannot handle working six, or even only five, days a week for weeks on end, throughout the year, the Jewish gift of natural time reminds us that there will be different times—separate holidays—over the year, when our bodies call for days of rest beyond Shabbat. The gift of balancing socially constructed time with naturally determined time is one of the greatest gifts that the Jews can bring the world.11
Technically, today is not Shabbat. Today is Yom Tov (יוֹם טוֹב), literally “a Good Day,” and I suspect we call today “a Good Day” because we know it is Good to rest. We believe it is good to be with friends and community. In the Maftir (מַפְטִיר) reading today12, we read that on the first day of this Jewish month of Tishrey (תִּשְׁרֵי)13, we are required to observe several different rites. Aside from offering various sacrifices, we are told 3 things:
Rosh HaShanah (רֹאשׁ הַשָּׁנָה)14 will be a mikra kodesh (מִֽקְרָא־קֹ֨דֶשׁ֙)—“a sacred calling” to gather together.
We may not perform any work on Rosh HaShanah. And…
Today shall be a Yom Teru’ah (י֥וֹם תְּֿרוּעָ֖ה).
The question we are left with is: What is a Yom Teru’ah? Our translation15 says “a day when the horn is sounded.” But, we have reason to doubt this translation. You might be familiar with a more “literalist” sect of Jews known as Karaites. Karaites are a group of Jews who split from “rabbanite” Jews when the Karaites essentially said, “No more rabbis reinterpreting the Bible for us. We’re going to take matters into our own hands and read the Torah as it is.” Well, Karaites observe Yom Teru’ah, but they don’t blow a shofar (שׁוֹפָר), because they consider it to be too much of a “work”-like activity, and we’re supposed to do no work on this Yom Teru’ah. Yet, without blowing any horns, Karaites agree that today has to be a Yom Teru’ah!16
In Aramaic, one of the languages in which parts of our TaNaKh (תָּנָ”ךְ)—our Bible—is written, the root letters of the word Teru’ah appears in the word yitre’ey (יִתְרְעֵי),17 which means something along the lines of “choosing,”18 “willing,”19 “desiring,”20 or “being acceptable.”21 The most frequent of these meanings is the notion of יתרעי as “choice.” Yom Teru’ah, as I see it, is a Day of Choice: a Day of Opportunity. On this Day of Opportunity—this Day of Presence22—we gather together for the Mikra Kodesh, we commit to no work, and we permit ourselves to become enveloped in the Mystery of Yom Teru’ah— the miracle of Being Present. We can make this miracle happen. We can be present when we say “No” to work (hard as that can be): when we rest, when we dwell among those whom we most love.
In an attempt to bring life to the Torah’s dream of Shabbat, our rabbis, nearly two millennia ago, identified 39 kinds of activities that qualify as “work.” These sages prohibited planting, plowing, harvesting, grinding, dancing, baking, weaving, tying, hunting, building, and 29 other kinds of actions that might not seem like “work” to us; however, these actions somehow alter our reality, changing the universe around us, reawakening a world that needs to rest.
There is a misconception that Shabbat is a day of Don’ts. It is in fact a day of Don’ts and a day of Dos. We don’t write on Shabbat, but we do read. We don’t touch money on Shabbat, but we delight in the pleasures and leisures we have already earned. We don’t send e-mail, but we do gather and have those face-to-face conversations we’ve been missing during the work week. For every Don’t, there is a Do, and our world is thirsting for a true Shabbat: this week, next week, the week after next, and every week from here on out.
Some translate the word mitzvah (מִצְוָה) as “commandment,” and others say it is “a good deed.” I believe that a mitzvah—related to the Aramaic word tzavta (צַוְתָּא), meaning “togetherness”—is “a connection.”23 Shabbat is a mitzvah not because it’s a commandment. Shabbat is a mitzvah because it’s a connection. Shabbat connects us to our bodies, which need a break; to our souls, which need a rest; to our world, which needs some stasis; to our community, which needs togetherness; and to our God, who needs our presence—for God, for ourselves, and for each other.
Because a mitzvah is a connection, the best I can do is to urge each of us. I cannot command; I can only compel. I would like to urge each of us to know that we need more Shabbat in our lives. We need more rest from work.
If you can, close your eyes.24 (And, if you can, don’t fall asleep.) Imagine yourself on Friday night. Friday night this week. It’s a bit past 6:30. Shabbat is beginning. Are you home yet? If not, how long will it take before yo ucome home? Remember—“the day is short, and the work is long.”25 In fact, the day is shorter than the work is long. There will always be more work to do. This is the hardest part now. It is just past 6:30, and Shabbat is beginning. The world is asking you, “Am I ready yet?” Really, the world is asking you, “Are you ready yet?” Shabbat is coming, and the world is longing just to stand still. Are you ready? Ready to let go of insurmountable obligations? Ready to say, “The world is not perfect, and I can perfect it better if only I rest?” The world is waiting for us to tell the world, “You’re good enough;” waiting for us to say, “I will take a break. Work, I will return again to you soon.” Keep your eyes closed. Imagine each of those overwhelming obligations that will consume you at 6:30 on Friday. They are standing before you. Take a deep breath. Take in each of those obligations as you breathe in. Breathe in those obligations. Now release all of those obligations as you take a deep breath out. With your eyes still closed, imagine one thing you will not do this Shabbat. Everyone thinks of work differently. For some people, work is going into an office. For some people, work is watering plants. What kind of work are you going to refrain from this Shabbat? When you’ve chosen a Don’t for yourself, hold onto it. Now, with your eyes still closed, think of one thing that is not work-related, one thing that you can commit to doing this Shabbat. Now, once you’ve decided on that thing that you will do this Shabbat, hold that image. Think back to what you told yourself you won’t do this Shabbat, and breathe it in. Imagine what you’re committed to doing, and breathe that out. Breathe in the Don’t. Breathe out the Do. Breathe in the Don’t. Breathe out the Do again. You may now open your eyes.
I learned recently from Rabbi Dr. Laura Gold, a licensed psychologist and a teacher of mine at the Seminary, that, we sometimes hold back from saying the “No” that we believe we ought to say because saying “No” makes us feel too uncomfortable. We may tell ourselves that we’ll start saying “No” once we feel more comfortable with doing so. But if we know we should be saying “No,” we can’t wait until we feel fine about saying it, as if merely thinking about the merits of saying “No” and the passage of time will somehow make the discomfort fade away… If we know we should say “No,” we just have to feel our discomfort and say “No.”26
As far as giving up work goes, it’s hard to say, “I’ll just quit work for a day.” What about the money I need? What about the people we’ll let down? Doctors always have more lives to save. Rabbis always have more souls to save. Store-owners always have more customers to please. The work is never over, and it never will be. The reason to say “No” is because we must say “No.” (In fact—and this might help to know—we are more efficient workers when we’re less tired.)
I want to share with you something that blew my mind recently.
Dan Buettner is an American-born explorer, and he travels the world in search of what he calls “blue zones.” “Blue zones” are places on Earth where people, in large numbers, live past the age of 100. These are the kinds of communities where, if you’re 99 years old, there’s a whole group of people who can tell you, “You’re too young to understand.” Buettner has explored “blue zones” in Italy, in Japan, and throughout the world. But—believe it or not—one of the greatest “blue zones” in the world is in the United States itself: in American communities of Seventh Day Adventists. Seventh Day Adventists, though Christian, do something really similar to what our rabbis had in mind for us Jews. On Friday night, Seventh Day Adventists drop whatever they’re doing, and they observe a 24-hour sabbath, during which nobody works. On their Sabbath, Seventh Day Adventists gather to socialize, to pray, and to take nature walks. I don’t know about you, but this sounds to me pretty darn similar to Shabbat (except for the nature walks, which, quite frankly, aren’t a bad idea). This consistent Sabbath-observance permits Seventh Day Adventists to live to be 97-year old heart surgeons, 103-year-old surfers and 104-year-old weight-lifters.27 It is almost as if, as a whole, Seventh Day Adventists are able to live longer, beacuse they take more breathers. After all, on the Seventh Day, when God finished creating the Heavens and the Earth, shavat vayyinnafash (שָׁבַ֖ת וַיִּנָּפַֽשׁ): God rested, and God breathed.28
The worlds needs a breather. The Jewish people can give the world the gift of rest. After 2 centuries of proving that we can be the hardest-working financiers, doctors, lawyers, clergy, musicians, artists—in every field from poetry to dance to filmmaking—the Jewish people has proven itself to be talented workers to the outside world. In fact, some of us Jews make up some of the most talented people this world has seen! But, in becoming so hard-working, we have not been fair to ourselves. We permitted America to become a workaholic. If the whole point of our Torah is to treat others as we would like to be treated,29 then we must ask what right we have to enable a workaholic nation.
As for me, I’m very afraid. When I become a rabbi, will I spend all my waking hours at a synagogue? Will I be visiting congregants in hospitals all night? Will I be studying Torah all day? Something’s got to give, because when you’re a rabbi, Shabbat just might be a workday. Yet, I’m going to need Shabbat. Maybe I can take off Wednesdays, or leave some personal time on Tuesdays. However I manage it, I pray that I have the strength to say “No” to workaholism, to say that the world can go on even when I’m not at work, to know I always will have more work, and I will never fulfill all my obligations.
Shabbat is not just a day of the week. Shabbat is a way of life. Shabbat is a gift Jews can bring to the world. I invite us all this year to come together for a mikra kodesh—to offer our gift of Shabbat to the world.


1. Jonah Rank.
2. In New York.
3. Delivered on the first morning of Rosh Hashanah 5775: September 25, 2014.
4. “Americans Work More Than Anyone” by Dean Schabner on ABC News, May 1, 2014: http://abcnews.go.com/US/story?id=93364 accessed September 24, 2014.
5. Obama, Barack, “Family-Friendly Workplace Policies Are Not Frills—They’re Basic Needs” on The Huffington Post. From June 23, 2014: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/barack-obama/family-friendly-workplace_b_5521660.html?1403532355 accessed Septembet 24, 2014.
6. “Overworked America: 12 Charts That Will Make Your Blood Boil” by Dave Gilson at Mother Jones (July/August 2011); accessed at http://www.motherjones.com/politics/2011/06/speedup-americans-working-harder-charts on September 24, 2014.
7. Bureau of Labor Statistics (U.S. Department of Labor), “American Time Use Survey — 2013 Results,” published June 18 2014, accessed at http://www.bls.gov/news.release/pdf/atus.pdf on September 24, 2014.
8. “Overworked America: 12 Charts That Will Make Your Blood Boil” by Dave Gilson at Mother Jones (July/August 2011); accessed at http://www.motherjones.com/politics/2011/06/speedup-americans-working-harder-charts on September 24, 2014.
9. Reb Zalman would refer to this as “commodity time.” See Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi with Joel Segel, Jewish With Feeling A Guide To Meaningful Jewish Practice (Riverhead Books: New York) 2005, p. 37.
10. Reb Zalman would refer to this as “organic time.” Ibid.
11. Ibid., pp. 186-192. Reb Zalman references other ideas the Jews can bring to the world: most notably, how to excel in exile (i.e., p. 195).
12. Book of Numbers 29:1-6.
13. Technically, not mentioned by name here in the Torah.
14. Technically, not mentioned by name here in the Torah.
15. From Mahzor Lev Shalem (edited by Ed Feld: Rabbinical Assembly: NY, 2010), p. 106.
16. See, for example, Shawn Joe Lichaa’s “A Karaite’s Experience of Yom Teru’ah” at TheTorah.com: A Historical and Contextual Approach accessed at http://thetorah.com/a-karaites-experience-of-yom-teruah/ on September 22, 2014.
17. Below is a broad, but not necessarily comprehensive, listing of instances in which variations on the term יתרעי (as soon to be defined) appears in the Pentateuch.
18. See for example, Targum Onkelos to Numbers 16:5: …וית דיתרעי ביה יקריב לשמושיה…; and similarly at Genesis 6:2, Numbers 16:7 and 17:20 and Deuteronomy 4:37, 7:6, 7:7, 10:15, 12:5, 12:11, 12:14, 14:2, 14:23, 14:24, 14:25, 15:20, 16:2, 16:6, 16:7, 16:11, 17:8 17:10, 17:16, 18:5, 18:6, 21:5, 23:17, 26:2, 30:19 and 31:11. Note that this sense is not used in Targum Onkelos to Exodus or Leviticus.
19. See for example, Targum Onkelos to Exodus 25:2: …מן כל גבר דיתרעי לביה…; and similarly at Exodus 35:5, 35:21, 35:22, 35:26 and 36:2. Note that this sense is not used in Targum Onkelos to Genesis, Leviticus, or Numbers.
20. See for example, Deuteronomy 12:20: …ארי תתרעי נפשך למיכל בשרא…. See also Genesis 34:19 and Deuteronomy 14:26, 21:11 and 21:14. Note that this sense is not used Targum Onkelos to Exodus, Leviticus, or Numbers.
21. See for example, Targum Onkelos to Leviticus 1:4: …ויתרעי ליה לכפרא עלוהי…; and similarly at Genesis 33:10 (where the meaning is more related to “finding acceptable”) and Leviticus 22:23 and 22:27. Note that this root-sense is never used in Targum Onkelos to Exodus or Numbers.
Alternatively, note that the root of ת.ר.ע. appears in the word יתרעון, which appears to mean “shattering” at Leviticus 11:35: …תנור וכירים יתרעון…. This notion of shattering or destruction also appears in Targum Onkelos to Exodus 34:13, Leviticus 14:45, and Deuteronomy 7:5 and 12:3. This appears to use the root of ת.ר.ע. fully—whereas previously referenced instances of יתרעי are likely itpe`al (אתפעל—reflexive) forms of a triliteral root that does not include the letter tav.
Also, note that Targum Onkelos to Genesis 18:2 and Exodus 12:22 uses מתרע to refer to the “opening” of Abraham’s tent—related to the Hebrew word שַֽׁעַר (“gate/opening”), with the shin (ש) becoming a tav (ת) and the order of the ayin (ע) and reysh (ר) being reversed. This same sense of “opening” recurs in Targum Onkelos to Exodus 32:17 and Leviticus 8:3 and 10:7.
Also of note is that Exodus 17:3’s ואתרעם appears to come from the root of ר.ע.מ.—hence the grumbling of the people Israel having little to nothing to do with the root of ת.ר.ע.. (and also little to nothing to do with one of the probable roots of יתרעי—ר.ע.י. (reysh, ayin, yod), א.ר.ע. (alef, reysh, ayin)., or ר.ע.ע. (resh, ayin, ayin).
22. Note the frequency with which the terms related to יתרעי, especially in Deuteronomy, come in the context of a chosen “place.”
23. Bradley Artson, “Mitzvot: Imperatives of a Loving Heart” in CJ: Voices of Conservative Judaism, Fall 2011: http:?/www.uscj.org/Mitzvot_Imperatives_8679.html . Note also that this definition is a traditional Chasidic teaching, attributed to the Ba’al Shem Tov, and likely preceding the Chasidic movement.
24. Closing one’s eyes is not recommended for anyone reading this sermon via visual means. The remnant of the meditative exercise herein can still remain effective sans closing of eyes. Parts of this exercise pertaining to eyes closing or opening should be ignored for the visual reader of this sermon.
25. Pirkey Avot 2:15. Note that the order and divisions of the teachings of Pirkey Avot vary widely from print to print; thus, the numbers here might appear to be slightly “off.” For a thorough review of Pirkey Avot’s history, see Shimon Sharvit (שמעון שרביט)’s Massekhet Avot L’Doroteha (מסכת אבות לדורותיה): Bialik (Jerusalem, 2004).
26. The italicized words here are from Rabbi Dr. Laura Gold: e-mail exchange on October 1, 2014. I have chosen to use her words from that e-mail (even though I did not in the sermon)—as I always prefer to give a teaching in the words of the teacher from whom I heard it first (lest I contort anyone’s words).
During my giving of this sermon on Rosh HaShanah, I did not have the fortune of quoting her. I hope that my paraphrase of Gold’s teaching then did justice for the sake of teaching in the community in Amsterdam, NY.
27. At https://www.google.com/url?sa=t&rct=j&q=&esrc=s&source=web&cd=1&cad=rja&uact=8&ved=0CCEQtwIwAA&url=http%3A%2F%2Fwww.ted.com%2Ftalks%2Fdan_buettner_how_to_live_to_be_100%3Flanguage%3Den&ei=nBMsVLyqB_b9sASKyYCgDw&usg=AFQjCNEWpEFJ7yUJKgVU1HyNZNj-aT80vw&sig2=j6s3aCeAGHMlakvKWqQrVw&bvm=bv.76477589,d.cWc accessed on September 24, 2014.
28. Exodus 31:17.
29. Babylonian Talmud, Shabbat 31a.

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